Colin Lenton

Glancing through the work produced by Kevin Alter and his partners at the architecture firm he founded, it’s often hard to distinguish where the land they build on ends and their work begins—and that makes sense, considering Alterstudio’s commitment to designing homes that are as meaningful to their inhabitants as they are in harmony with their cultural context and natural surroundings.

From preserving live ancient trees by incorporating them into their architecture—such as in the Lake View Residence—to manipulating daylight to animate interiors, the firm’s meticulous detail work, preference for clean lines and honest materials, and respect for the natural environment has been praised through hundreds of design awards, including a Builder’s Choice & Custom Home Design Award for the South 5th Residence this year, and several recent Residential Architect Design Awards.

“We view all of our projects as ‘additions,’” says Alter. “We assess what’s good about a site, suppress what could be problematic, and consider what’s latent. We ask: ‘What possibilities are there and how can we take advantage of them?’ We borrow from what’s around us.”

Casey Dunn

An East Coast transplant who came to Hill Country in 1991 to teach by way of Vermont and Massachusetts—where he attended Bennington College and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, respectively—Alter wasn’t expecting to make Austin his firm’s permanent home, although the city’s sunny weather and stunning landscape swiftly set that plan in course.

“Coming from the urban Northeast, it felt incredibly liberating to design amidst rolling hills that are dotted with majestic ancient oaks and pines, but also cacti and succulents,” he says. “I know I can’t create anything as beautiful, but I can add my composition to a primed canvas and hope the result might frame a particular view, or capture the sunlight, in a way that feels good for the people who engage with the site.”

Casey Dunn

He was joined by Tim Whitehill in 2002, and Ernesto Cragnolino—who studied under Alter at UT—in 2004, when Alterstudio transitioned from an extension of Alter’s studio class to a formal partnership. Alter has also edited over a dozen architectural books, curated 16 exhibitions, and is currently the Sid W. Richardson Centennial Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, where he served as academic director for architecture programs and associate dean for graduate programs from 2001 to 2014.

Following a modernist sensibility, his firm works in a restrained materials palette that’s cohesive inside and out, and relies on details to provide pops of color that invite warmth and liveliness into the spaces. Such is the case in the Farley Trail House, which won a 2017 Builder’s Choice & Custom Home Design Award, where a teal blue wall offsets a warm wood screen and crisp white ceiling, and in the Laurelwood Residence, a mid-century modern spec home that marries concrete, oak, and brick in a subdued backdrop to thoughtful detailing, such as an aqua tile backsplash in the kitchen.

Casey Dunn

“We follow a model that believes good design can be both powerful and subdued, both exposed and protected,” says Alter. “The best architecture provides that simultaneously. We care a great deal about detail. A home on any scale or budget should be deep and meaningful for people who inhabit it.”

The firm favors materials that are authentic to Austin, such as rift-sawn oak for slat screen detailing, which appears in several projects and is sourced from local carpenters. Preferring a collaborative office culture that mirrors the counterpoise reflected in their projects, Alterstudio’s staff is an intimate group of 10—all practicing architects who wear several hats in the office that range from administrative work to sketching plans. Though the firm has never formally advertised or marketed its work, the waitlist of clients, who approach the studio via word of mouth or knowledge of a particular project, is always full.

Paul Finkel

“I resent the image of a single architect. Our best work evolves with the input of our staff, the client, the builder, and the craftsmen who bring their individual expertise and finesse to each project,” says Alter. “I don’t know if you could deconstruct any of our buildings back to my earliest sketch.”